Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, October 28, 2010

Harris returns to La Follette as faculty member

La Follette School photo taken August 24, 2010, by Andy Manis

Doug Harris


Doug Harris joined Tulane University's Murphy Institute and Economics Department in 2012.

1996 grad Doug Harris is back at La Follette, standing at the podium rather than taking down lecture notes on educational policy analysis.

Motivated by the La Follette School's emphasis on applying economic analysis to public policy, Harris went on to earn his Ph.D. in economics from Michigan State University in 2000. He then worked briefly at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., collaborating with the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy's office in the development of the federal No Child Left Behind education policy. From there, he moved to a tenure-track position at Florida State University in education and economics.

But his first stint in Madison and La Follette led him back to Wisconsin for more. He joined the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Department of Educational Policy Studies in 2007 then accepted a joint appointment with the La Follette School faculty in fall 2010. "There are so many people at UW-Madison doing great research on education policy," Harris says, "in the School of Education of course, but also Bob Haveman, Carolyn Heinrich, Kathryn Magnuson, Andy Reschovsky, Tim Smeeding, and Bobbi Wolfe at La Follette, and others in economics and sociology."

The interdisciplinary approach at the university and the "Wisconsin Idea" were also a big part of the decision to head north. "UW is unique. Talking across 'silos' is not only acceptable but expected here," Harris says. "The Department of Educational Policy Studies, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, Institute for Research on Poverty, and, of course, La Follette are places that thrive on these rich conversations."

Harris' recent research has informed many of the major education issues of the day: improving teacher education and performance, designing educational accountability, reducing achievement gaps, reforming affirmative action higher education and making colleges run more efficiently. In addition to his academic publications, his work has been discussed in major media outlets like the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post, as well as CNN and PBS. He has also been an informal advisor to the Obama transition team and administration, and other state and federal policymakers, on school accountability and community college reforms. (The community college work was joint with La Follette school faculty affiliate Sara Goldrick-Rab and others.) He has also made a mark on Wisconsin policies through the Wisconsin State Journal and testimony to the Wisconsin Senate.

Measuring the performance of educators is one topic that has been in the headlines and high on Harris' agenda. "Value-added" measures of teacher performance have become popular because they are based on student test scores but are adjusted in ways that more accurately reflect educator contributions. Harvard Education Press will publish his book, Value-Added Measures of Educator Performance: Clearing Away the Smoke and Mirrors, in 2011. Harris is beginning to study school and principal value-added measures with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. "It all started with the 819 course that I took from Maria Cancian," he says. "That's where I first got interested in econometrics."

Harris is moving into new territory, working with Goldrick-Rab to study the cost-effectiveness of higher education programs, especially college financial aid. Their Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study is a randomized trial of financial aid for low-income students, funded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates, William T. Grant and Spencer foundations. With funding from the Lumina Foundation, he and Goldrick-Rab are also carrying out an extensive cost-effectiveness analysis using rigorous evidence on higher education programs such as remediation, student services, financial aid and Upward Bound. "The cost-effectiveness work is rare but powerful." Harris says "I might not have realized the value in it if not for the benefit-cost analysis course in La Follette."

La Follette's intellectual culture is an important influence, he says. "It's not just the courses, but the mindset. Most economists focus narrowly on formal modeling and statistical methods. Those things are important, but the policy implications often get lost. Because of La Follette, I can do both."

— updated June 15, 2012